The end of the history of Jephthah is not very lofty and not worth imitating. Jephthah is not acting in gentleness here, but hard. Many people die as a result. He is not guided by love, but seeks his own honor.
1 The Cause of the Conflict
1 Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you? We will burn your house down on you.”
The Ephraimites have not changed since the events in the beginning of Judges 8. There Gideon met the Ephraimites in humbleness. Unfortunately, they did not realize how selfish they were. This shows that a good treatment does not have to lead to a better self-knowledge. Their proud attitude, stemming from their position, by which they think they have a right to a place of dignity, is still there.
They complain here again because they do not think they have been treated with due respect. A sin that is not sincerely confessed, reappears sooner or later. They appear to have sunk even deeper here. In Judges 8 they have at least done something else, here they have done nothing at all. In their wounded pride they threaten to burn Jephthah. They still cannot cope with the fact that others are used and they are not. This contrasts enormously with the mind of Paul (Phil 1:15-18).
2 - 3 The Reaction of Jephthah
2 Jephthah said to them, “I and my people were at great strife with the sons of Ammon; when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3 When I saw that you would not deliver [me], I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the sons of Ammon, and the LORD gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?”
Jephthah does not react like Gideon, but reproaches them. The second part of the first verse of Proverbs 15 applies to him, as does the first part of that verse for Gideon: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Pro 15:1). It is striking how often Jephthah uses the word ‘I’ in what he says to the Ephraimites. The ‘I and my people’, that is Gilead, refers to partisan, sectarian actions. He no longer has an eye for all the people of God. Jephthah expresses himself in this way, because he feels personally offended.
When one’s own ‘I’ comes to the fore, it becomes a search of one’s own interest and standing up for one’s own honor. These are the things that are found in people who are guided by the law. If you want to be a zealot for the law, you cannot escape finding yourself important and seeking your own honor.
The law is given to man so that by keeping the law he may show that he lives according to the norm of God. But there is no one who has kept or can keep the law. This is not due to the law, but to man. Those who sincerely want to keep the law will discover that they cannot keep it. Such a person confirms the purpose of the law, which is given to show man who he is by nature. That is why it says: “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious” and so on (1Tim 1:8-10). Through the law man learns to know his sinfulness. This will make him go to Christ with Whom salvation can be found through His work on the cross.
He who has taken refuge in Christ is free from the curse of the law. It is written: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—” (Gal 3:13). It even says that he who believes no longer has anything to do with the law: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4).
Whoever, as a Christian, still wants to keep the law, if only to do so out of gratitude, is once again under the curse of it. The law cannot produce anything else. The law can only condemn and kill because it is meant for the natural man.
When a believer (again) keeps the law, he does something that Paul denounces sharply in his letter to the Galatians. He describes the consequences of this in their dealings with one another in this way: “But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15), and: “Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Gal 5:26).
This is reflected in the life of Jephthah and it is also reflected in the lives of Christians who take the law as their rule of life. If one’s own honor is hurt and the rule of life is the law, then the reaction is one of retaliation, of standing up for one’s own honor. The result is that there is no more fruit for God. Ephraim means ‘fertile’ isn’t it?
The above does not mean that the Ephraimites can be excused. They behave far from worthy of their name. They are the instigators of Jephthah’s attitude. However, a lot of bloodshed would have been prevented if Jephthah had reacted otherwise. How much quarrel, discord and spiritual manslaughter would have been prevented in local churches if one’s own honor and interests had been set aside and brotherly love had been put into practice.
4 The Cause of the Fratricidal Struggle
4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim [and] in the midst of Manasseh.”
The direct cause of the fratricidal struggle is a vulgar insult that is not accepted by the other. The men of Gilead have been offended by the Ephraimites, they are deeply grieved. They have been scolded for runaway Ephraimites. What an insult! They cannot let this go unchallenged. This is how it comes to a struggle between the two parties.
It is a good thing if we do not give an inch when the Lord Jesus or the Word of God is wronged or attacked. But if we are attacked ourselves, the situation is different. In the latter case, we can overcome evil by rewarding good and not evil with evil (Rom 12:21,17). Then there are no Divine principles at stake. We will see that in Judges 20 there is a situation that justifies a fratricidal struggle for the fact that there are Divine principles at stake.
Jephthah spends a lot of time and patience with the enemy, but he is briefly tethered against God’s people.
5 - 6 At the Fords
5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when [any of] the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” 6 then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim.
The tribes separated by the Jordan can only reach each other through the fords. And that is precisely where the slaughter takes place. The Jordan speaks of the death and resurrection of Christ and that we died and rose with Him. It is in fact a place where the unity of the people of God and their connection to Him must become most visible.
We can apply this to the place where the unity of the church should be most visible, namely at the Lord’s Table. There is His death proclaimed: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1Cor 11:26). The cup speaks of the blood of Christ and the bread speaks of the body of Christ. The church owes all its blessings to this, including the blessing of being one church. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s table, she may show that unity: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:17).
But what has been made of it in practice? Not much of this unity can be seen anymore because each group has its own thoughts and ideas about that ‘being one’. These thoughts can be too broad, so that anyone who says he is a believer can participate in the Lord’s Supper without any investigation and only on the basis of his own confession. This unbiblical unity can be found in the ecumenical striving, both in the established churches and in the broad flow of the evangelical movement. Because this aspect does not appear in this history, we will not speak about it here.
In the attitude that Jephthah adopts here, we can think of the other danger, the opposite of being too broad, namely being too narrow. This happens when believers are barred from the Lord’s Supper who can participate in it on the basis of Scripture. Scripture indicates that a believer can participate in the Lord’s Supper if he
1. does not live in sin (1Cor 5:13);
2. has no wrong doctrine about the Lord Jesus and the Scriptures (Gal 5:1-10);
3. is not a confessing member of any church or group of which he knows that these things are present there, but are not judged and removed (2Tim 2:16-21; 2Jn 1:9-11; 1Cor 10:18; Rev 18:1-5; 2Cor 6:14-17; Heb 13:9-13).
From all these Scriptures it is clear, what we also can understand well, that God and sin cannot go together. In short, it comes down to this: one must be personally pure in teaching and life and not have fellowship with believers who are not.
The Scriptures do not give any other conditions for participation in the Lord’s Supper and we therefore are not allowed to set them either. For example, if we demand that someone thinks precisely the same about the future of Israel as we do before he is accepted to partake in the Lord’s Supper, we make ‘the future of Israel’ a ‘shibboleth’ (see verse 6). We then make insight into the prophecy a condition for reception to the Lord’s Table. It may well be that someone, in our opinion, does not have the right insight in this. He can be taught in it. But making such a thing a condition for reception to the Lord’s Table is an unbiblical restriction or narrowing of the fellowship.
It is important to look for the fords, that is to say, to look for what is present in common faith, to share this with each other. From there an upbuilding of the “most holy faith” (Jude 1:20) can take place. It is not about what makes separation, but about what unites, what binds.
Shibboleth or sibboleth (verse 6)
The word ‘shibboleth’ means ‘corn ear’ or ‘flood’. Those who did not pronounce this word in the way the Gileadites thought it to be right, was killed. This word served to make a clear distinction between the men of Gilead and the Ephraimites. This word reminds us of making a separation.
It is a danger that we can also recognize today, perhaps in our own hearts, perhaps around us. We think, or hear it said, that it is important to know what distinguishes one’s own religious community from other religious communities. What is wrong with others is widely measured, while one’s own insights are considered correct.
I am not saying that we cannot be convinced for ourselves of the right place we occupy in the midst of a confused Christianity. We want to be part of and take responsibility in a local church that meets to biblical standards. It may be that we have found that place after earlier acquaintance with other churches and/or religious communities. We will then indeed be able to indicate why we could not stay in a certain place. It will usually have to do with what God’s Word says about the church of God, how things should happen there, what can and cannot be accepted.
We cannot leave a church because one or more people there have been unfriendly towards us. Our personal experience is important, but a reason to leave can only be if there are things present or events that are demonstrably contrary to the Bible and there is no intention to change this in obedience to God’s Word. It is important to know whether God’s Word is given absolute authority and whether it is acted upon. When personal hurt or a difference in opinion about not fundamental things leads to a separation in God’s people, a new ‘shibboleth’ has arisen.
7 The End of Jephthah’s Life
7 Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in [one of] the cities of Gilead.
God’s Word mentions that Jephthah has led Israel for six years. This gives him the stamp of God that he is someone appointed by Him, despite his failure against Ephraim. It is clear from 1 Samuel 12 that Jephthah was sent by God as much as Gideon, Barak and Samuel (1Sam 12:11), as is evident from his mention in the list of heroes of faith (Heb 11:32). He knew what God had done with His people. He knew, so to speak, the Bible. He took this as his starting point in fulfilling the commands God gave him.
Life was made difficult for him. In our view, he may have made wrong decisions. We have tried to learn some lessons from this. Yet, in the end, it is God who will set the standard completely justly over the life of Jephthah. Jephthah is one of those righteous who have not yet received what has been promised (Heb 11:39). That moment will come. Then God will also reward Jephthah for the faithfulness he has shown on earth in the service to His people. To this end he is buried.
8 - 10 Ibzan
8 Now Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel after him. 9 He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters [whom] he gave in marriage outside [the family], and he brought in thirty daughters from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem.
After Jephthah there are again a number of judges of whom not much is said, just like after the reign of Abimelech (Jdg 10:1-5). Together, the three following judges will provide twenty-five years of rest. If we may have a time of rest, it is a gift from God. He gives us that as an opportunity to strengthen us spiritually and not to sleep.
The judges mentioned are in contrast to the failure of Jephthah. The first is called Ibzan, which means ‘purity’. Already something has been said about purity in our personal lives and in the fellowship of believers of which we are part. James speaks in his letter of wisdom as the origin of purity and the place it occupies in wisdom: “The wisdom from above is first pure” (Jam 3:17). Here we see that purity comes from a wisdom that has its source in heaven, in God, and that that wisdom on earth works first and foremost ‘purity’. This is because wisdom has an eye for the corruption that is in the world and through which it is surrounded.
Whoever lives in purity, that is to say in fellowship with God, will experience peace in his heart, and peace will radiate from him. Therefore James says that the wisdom from above is “then peaceable”. What follows, all connects to what is needed to live in a completely unclean world. The wisdom that is from above, may show in the midst of it what is found in God. But, as said, it starts with purity, the meaning of the name Ibzan.
Ibzan comes from Bethlehem, which means ‘bread house’. That should be every faith community. A local church will be a “bread house” for the hungry soul if especially the overseers take into account the purity and holiness necessary to count on the presence of God.
The contrast with Jephthah is evident from what Ibzan does. Instead of sacrificing his own daughter and killing his brothers, he has growth and multiplication. He has all his thirty daughters married. They take the purity they have seen with their father to their new surroundings. Thus he passes on the principle of purity which he himself upholds.
The same applies to his sons, who support his personal position. This can be inferred from the fact that they stay with him. Thus, every overseer who acts faithfully, that is, according to the principles of God’s Word, can count on expansion and support of those principles by others.
All his sons and all his daughters marry. Ibzan must have had a family in which every young man and every young woman liked to be accepted by marrying one of his children. It is good for parents to see their children fall in love with and marry believers from other local churches to go with him or her the way of the Lord and serve Him in their lives. Ibzan did not stay at home, but goes out for his children. He also lets his children leave in peace when he has found a good place for them.
His good influence on Israel lasted seven years. The number seven indicates fullness, as we have seen before. The period that he judges must have been a blessing for the people. The place from which he comes, also becomes the place of his burial.
11 - 12 Elon
11 Now Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel after him; and he judged Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.
Elon means ‘strong’. He is a descendant of Zebulun, which means ‘home’. Zebulun gets his name from his mother Lea, who says at birth: “Now my husband will dwell with me” (Gen 30:20). She thinks that she won his affection by the sixth son she gave birth to Jacob. From this comes the thought of a reconciliation between Jacob and Leah.
What can we think of now when we read about Elon, the Zebulunite? That someone is called a strong man when he brings reconciliation where there is quarrel. It is someone who puts his hands on the shoulders of two quarrelling brothers or sisters. In Philippians 4 Paulus is such a strong man (Phil 4:2-3). We can also show our strength by bringing brothers or sisters who are quarrelling together.
Elon is buried in Aijalon. One of the meanings of that name is ‘place of oaks’. The oak is an example of strength and durability. With his death, his life is not over and forgotten. The same power he shows in his life is linked to his death. Elon shows something of the kind of pastor about whom we read in Hebrews 13: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).
13 - 15 Abdon
13 Now Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel after him. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys; and he judged Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.
Again we can learn a lot from the meaning of the names. Abdon means ‘service’, Hillel ‘hymn of praise’ and Pirathon ‘freedom’, ‘princely’, ‘summit’ or ‘retribution’. If the service of an overseer comes from a heart full of praise and can be exercised in freedom, that is a benefit for the church. Such an overseer or pastor will do his job with joy.
Much depends on the believers among whom he does his service. It should not be made difficult for him. Here is the admonition: “Obey your leaders and submit [to them], for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17). For example, in each local church there is an interaction between the overseers or pastors and those who are being led.
If an overseer can do his work well, his (spiritual) sons and grandsons will continue the service and praise of their (spiritual) father and grandfather. Elderly and young people follow him. This also applies to the third generation, which is usually the generation that leaves.
The secret of his success is revealed by his victory over the Amalekites. He has conquered a piece of land from them during his lifetime. Amalek is a picture of the flesh. Abdon shows us the picture of a person who in practice has done the following: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
Abdon’s grave becomes a monument of this. Abdon has made his way up, in the mountains, by his victory over the flesh, of which the Amalekites are a picture. On his grave could be written: ‘He has conquered the flesh’.